Featured Wilderness: New Mexico's Columbine Hondo

Your Wilderness - June 2012

High above Taos, NM, and just east of town rise the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a rugged range doubling as a scenic backdrop and clean water source for the community. Nestled within these mountains is the Columbine Hondo, a high alpine ecosystem that is home to mule deer, elk, black bears, and mountain lions that is also full of recreational opportunities.

Managed as a wilderness study area by the U.S. Forest Service since 1980, the Columbine Hondo still lacks permanent protection. Now, thanks to the efforts of the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Coalition and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), this wild place may finally be given the “gold standard” of protection—designation as wilderness—if Congress acts. 

The Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Act (S. 2468), introduced by Bingaman and co-sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), aims to safeguard 45,000 acres of the Carson National Forest, where famed wilderness advocate Aldo Leopold spent part of his Forest Service career. This wild area benefits local communities in many ways, providing clean water for agriculture, healthy habitat for wildlife, outdoor adventures for visitors, and tourist dollars for local businesses.

The region's appeal—to skiers, mountain bikers, hikers, hunters, and anglers, who all find places to pursue their passions—is a major reason why more than  200 local businesses support wilderness designation for the Columbine Hondo. But it's not just the business community that wants this place protected.  Local elected officials, the Taos Pueblo, hunters and anglers, ranchers, conservationists, and mountain bikers have expressed support for keeping this area just as it is for future generations to use and enjoy.

This May, the Santa Fe New Mexican endorsed the proposal saying, “In one swoop, the legislation being considered preserves wilderness and habitat while improving biking in the area, a combination that will make Northern New Mexico an even more popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts.”

Safeguarding the Columbine Hondo will also add a missing piece to the Carson National Forest's wilderness puzzle: Two wilderness areas, Latir Peak and Wheeler Peak, located to the north and south, respectively, already enjoy full protection under the Wilderness Act. This additional wilderness designation will give New Mexico's bighorn sheep herd and countless other species, such as marmot and pica, more secure habitat in a state with wilderness protection for only 3 percent of its land.

Credit for keeping the drumbeat of advocacy audible over the years goes to committed local residents, who cherish the Columbine Hondo. When introducing the legislation on the Senate floor, Bingaman offered high praise to this coalition:

“During my tenure in the Senate, it has been relatively uncommon to find such overwhelming support for the establishment of a new wilderness area. I commend the dedication and perseverance exhibited by the many local wilderness advocates who have devoted many years to see this effort come to fruition. Without their help, it may have taken another decade before Congress addressed this long outstanding matter.”

To follow this legislation as it progresses in Congress and to learn more about the area, visit the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Coalition website.

San Cristobal Canyon Where to Hike

Dozens of miles of hiking trails lie within the Columbine Hondo. A good place to start is the road to the Taos Ski Valley. Numerous trail heads are along State Highway 150, including access to the Yerba Canyon Trail and the Italianos Canyon Trail. The Yerba Canyon Trail leads to Lobo Peak, while the trail in Italianos Canyon connects with routes to Gold Hill and Flag Mountain in addition to Lobo Peak. Both routes include significant elevation gains of more than 2,000 feet.

For more information on hiking, camping, and other recreational opportunities in the Columbine Hondo, visit the Questa Ranger District website, or you can join the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance on a hike into the Columbine Hondo on July 21. You can sign up for it here.